Matchless Woods finally proves vision of greatness clear and true

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The Independent Online

When they trawl back through the years to get a measure of Tiger Woods, maybe when some new pretender has come swaggering into golf, they must stop the reel at 10 April, 2005, and consider something he did... and something he said.

When they trawl back through the years to get a measure of Tiger Woods, maybe when some new pretender has come swaggering into golf, they must stop the reel at 10 April, 2005, and consider something he did... and something he said.

Here in the bright spring sunshine, when the thunder and lightning in the sky and on the Augusta National course had passed, when for the fourth time they had put the Green Jacket on the 29-year-old who is back on course to surpass Jack Nicklaus's once dream-like total of 18 majors, that deed and those words seem to say everything about the nature of his place in the imagination of sport.

What he did was play one of the greatest shots in the history of golf, a chip from off the 16th green which slowly snaked across some of the most treacherous terrain in the game, then, with a final revolution of the ball, dropped into the hole for the birdie that would have broken the heart, there and then, of a less resilient fighter than the play-off loser, Chris DiMarco.

What Woods said was in response to one of the favourite questions of golf technicians: Tiger are you there now? Or, to translate, was he finally back in the zone, was everything working as in some fancy, computerised machine.

The Tiger's eyes narrowed slightly and then he said, "I don't think you're ever there. You never arrive, but if you do, you might as well quit because you're already there. Can't get any better. So the answer is no, I'll never be there."

There, precisely half-way through the challenge set by Nicklaus, who won his final major and Green Jacket here at the age of 46, was the thrilling resolve to attempt to push on beyond any limits ever imposed upon a single golfer.

Woods came into the 69th Masters as a member of the Fabulous Four or Five, an equal-terms, head-to-head competitor with Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and, maybe, Retief Goosen: all superb players, all winners of majors, no doubt, but the equal of the Tiger when his mind and his game are set? It has always been, ultimately, a fantasy.

They are the Four. He is the One. That he still has some struggles ahead, that amid all the blinding virtuosity of much of his play here there were moments of dismaying breakdowns in judgement and technique, is not in dispute. But then he always brings so much to the battle. How, in the end, can he be indefinitely thwarted?

His description of the chip that might have been assisted by a guardian angel, and his retelling of what was going through his mind at the time, was in one sense deadpan golf calculation... in another it was a recital of the workings of genius.

"Under the circumstances," he said, "it's one of the best shots I ever hit ... maybe the most important... I mean, if Chris [DiMarco] makes the putt and I make bogey, all of a sudden it's a different ball game. All of a sudden I'm one back.

"So I figured I needed to get this thing at least up-and-down, give myself a chance to make a par. I remember Davis [Love III] chipping in from back over there, so I tried to get it close, not necessarily to chip it in, but just get there as near to the pin as I could... I wasn't really thinking about chipping in. I was just trying to throw the ball up there on the hill and let it feed down and, hopefully, have a makeable putt.

"All of sudden it looked pretty good, and all of a sudden it looked like really good and it then looked how it could not go in [and how did it not go in?] and then it went in ... so it was pretty sweet."

Maybe the perfection of that moment was a little too much even for the refined set of psychological reflexes and skill that has created the Tiger legend. Maybe, and near fatally, he made the same assumption as the rest of the world. Maybe he thought there was no answer to that moment of exquisite judgement.

But of course an old pro like DiMarco battles on and he did it so effectively that Woods had to reach out for the best and most unfathomable depth of his natural brilliance. If you wanted a master class on perfect golf you would keep the film of the birdie on the first play-off hole, the 18th where Tiger had bogeyed so disconsolately a few minutes earlier. He said he hit his career three-wood, an iron that couldn't have been better and a 15-foot putt that announced it was going in from the moment it left the blade.

Before he left to deliver a "bear hug" to his ailing father and mentor, Earl, Woods was asked to reflect on the now 10-year-old statement of Nicklaus that one day the new boy would surpass the combined total of Green Jackets owned by himself, six of them, and Arnold Palmer, four.

Nicklaus gave the opinion after a wild debut by the 19-year-old amateur, who tied for 41st place and threatened the physical safety of almost everyone on the course.

"At the time I just wondered what Jack was smoking. I mean, if you had seen the way I hit the golf ball in 95... OK, I bombed it down every fairway, but when I had a wedge I flew over the galleries, and no one was safe. It was not good and for Jack to say that then was, well, just mind-boggling."

But then Jack knew then what the world knows now. He saw the power and the skill and he felt a mysterious force.

That mystery never before ran so deep is it did over the back nine at Augusta National on Sunday afternoon. The victory was a compound mixture of the sublime and the vulnerable. At the heart of everything, though, was a quality that was as bright and as hard as a diamond.

It was something that Jack Nicklaus saw before anyone else, and as he fished in Florida on a sleepy afternoon he knew well enough that his old but still bright eyes had been true.

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